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Ofcom sets stage for white spaces services, changes mind on refarming

UK regulator Ofcom has outlined its proposals for the white space spectrum within the analog TV band

By PETER WHITE

Published: 11 November, 2010

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UK regulator Ofcom has outlined its proposals for the white space spectrum within the analog TV band. Most of the work on using these frequencies for affordable broadband has been done in the US, where the FCC greenlighted the approach two years ago, subject to interference concerns being addressed. Now Europe is following the US lead, as part of multipronged strategies to create universal broadband and 3G coverage.

Ofcom believes the spare capacity could be used to enhance broadband services in rural areas. “The airwaves that wireless devices depend on are becoming increasingly congested,” said the agency’s director of technology resources, Professor William Webb. “We need to think about more efficient ways of using this limited resource. Using the white spaces between TV channels is a good example of how we can both use spectrum more efficiently and provide opportunities for innovative new applications and services.”

The consultation paper outlines the processes needed to do this successfully while allaying broadcasters’ fears of interference with their own services. Ofcom supports the creation of a geolocation database, containing live information about which frequencies are free to use in a particular area. It estimates that a regulatory and technical framework will be in place by the end of next year to support white space communications.

These comments came a week after Ofcom reversed previous stances on another key spectrum issue, refarming of GSM bands for 3G or even LTE. It has reportedly ruled that refarming spectrum in the 900MHz and 1.8GHz bands would not impact competition. In a paper summarizing its advice to the government, it said running 3G in these two bands would deliver many benefits, such as “greater network capacity … improved coverage quality and consistency (900MHz band); improved in-building coverage (900MHz band); and wider coverage of rural areas (900MHz band).”

The UK is required to liberalize this spectrum for 3G use by two pieces of European legislation – the amended GSM Directive and the associated Radio Spectrum Decision.

The latest Ofcom advice reverses a previous opinion from February 2009, when the regulator argued that ‘liberalizing 900MHz spectrum in the hands of the incumbent holders, without constraint, could lead to competitive distortion and/or inefficiencies for around two to four years, until services using 800MHz spectrum could offer a competitive constraint.” The UK situation is complicated by the fact that only O2 and Vodafone hold 900MHz spectrum, which is regarded as the most advantageous for 3G expansion because it has strong propagation characteristics for rural coverage.

But following the merger of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK, Ofcom thinks the competitive advantage of the other two majors is diminished. “Overall we now consider the risk and extent of any competitive advantage for O2 or Vodafone arising from liberalization of the 900MHz spectrum for UMTS to be low and significantly less than our analysis suggested in February 2009.” In the 1.8GHz band, where TMo and Orange run GSM services, it said “there remains little risk of a material competitive distortion.”

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